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Yard-to-Table 101: Take your first steps to 'Homegrown' veggies!

As history has shown…when times get tough, Americans often turn to gardening—because of scary, fresh food supply shortages and for health reasons. When World War II began in September of 1939, who knew that by 1943, 40 percent of Americans would be gardening in their own “Victory Gardens”? 

Thanks to the pandemic, you might want to garden because you’re stuck at home, you’d like to try your hand at something new, or you really want your own homegrown fresh produce—it’s healthy, tastes good, and it’s good for the environment—all positives that we need right now.  At UMN Extension, we can help you with this new yard-to-table journey! 

This is the first in a four-part series on easy vegetable gardening that will give you the tools to create your own vegetable garden. Never gardened before? No problem! Got just a patio or an apartment balcony? No worries! 
Lettuce grown in a pot on a patio/balcony.
Photo: Carol Reed

We'll show you how to do something as simple as growing your own lettuce in a pot. 

And if you have any questions, just Ask Extension or go to our website: Yard and Garden. 

In the's how I suggest you begin:

Make a plan

What produce would your family like to grow and eat? Jot a few notes down...then, for ideas, skim a list of 200 top picks by Master Gardeners for vegetables and flowers to grow. 

Every year, Master Gardeners conduct seed trials around the state and rate a half dozen varieties of each plant for disease and insect tolerance, growth and germination rate. Vegetables are rated for taste and flavor, as well as productivity. 

Seed trial results: Top vegetables and flowers recommended for Minnesota Gardener

You can also explore what it takes to grow individual vegetables. Read this Extension resource: Vegetables

Raised bed set up for "square foot" gardening method.
Photo: Gail Hudson, Extension Communications
Where do you want to plant your garden? 
It’s time to figure out where you’re going to plant veggies—got a sunny spot in your backyard in mind? Even a small space can produce vegetables. Perhaps you’d like to try a raised bed garden (easier on the back and knees), or grow vegetables in containers? 

To help you determine what you could plant and where, Gardener’s Supply has an excellent online planning tool to help you design your space.  
Design Your Row or Bed

The Square Foot Gardening organization recommends this method: taking a raised bed and creating one-by-one foot squares, each with a different plant. They also offer bilingual resources. 
Square Foot Gardening Foundation

Get a soil test. The information you’ll get from it will tell you how to prepare your soil for planting. Contact the U’s Soil Test Lab. They are accepting samples by mail.  It only takes a few minutes to make up a sample from your yard, fill out the form and get good information about your soil. For $17 a sample, you’ll make sure you’re giving your plants the best start for a successful garden! 
UMN Soil Testing Laboratory

What planting zone do you live in? The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map shows Minnesota’s average annual extreme temperatures in different parts of the state. 

This map will help you decide which plants will thrive in your garden. Determine your zone, then keep that information at hand while you continue planning your garden.

Making Gardening Decisions Using Historical Temperature Data

Starting some plants from seed

Would you like to start some plants from seed? It’s a less expensive alternative to buying plants. You can start seeds indoors for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and so on. Other crops you can sow the seeds directly into the soil, such as green beans, cucumbers, squash and so on. (More information on this to come in our article series.) 

Or, you can keep it simple, support your local nursery and use their order and pick-up services to buy starter plants. 

Here’s Extension's information on everything you need to know about starting seeds right now.  

Starting seeds indoors

Want to watch someone setting up a seed starting system or area at home? Even if you don't have any equipment at home? We've got a lot to show you! 

NEW VIDEOS: Seed starting inspiration from our systems at home

And read this article to learn how to know what seeds to start and when.

It's time to Start Your Seeds!

Homegrown lettuce salad.
Photo: Carol Reed

Next time in Vegetable Gardening 101: Planting 'cool' crops outdoors

Barring a major snowstorm, late April is a great time for residents in the southern half of  Minnesota to begin sowing seeds outdoors.  This includes getting the soil ready and planting early or what are called “cool-season” crops such as lettuce, peas, broccoli, kale and cabbage. 

Don't worry--it's easy to do and always so wonderful to taste your own fresh peas or lettuce!  (See photo above.) Stay tuned...and be well! 

Author: Gail Hudson, Yard & Garden News Editor, Extension Communications

Gail Hudson has a Masters degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota. She is an award-winning writer and journalist. 

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